Relationships are hard, no doubt. Familial relationships can be especially so, including the experience of motherhood. Hallmark would have you think it’s all smiles, pinks and blues, and happy people with a kid strapped to them, but the reality is much different: more nuanced, layered, and messy. For me, the best fiction reflects that.
The path to motherhood and the experience of motherhood can look different for everyone, and families are wildly different. What fiction can do for us is not only give us a window into different kinds of relationships and families, but also reflect back to us our own experiences, make us feel seen and heard, or provide comfort or humor just when we need it. I’ve put together a list of novels about motherhood and family that comprise a wide range of experiences, situations, and types of families. For me, the different voices are what makes this so interesting — they’re all about the general topic, but they’re all so wonderfully unique that you could read them all, one after the other, and not tire of the theme.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
Frida Liu is not in a great place. One especially rough day, she leaves her baby home alone, intending to just run and get a cup of coffee. But the state’s been watching mothers, waiting for a slip up, and now she’ll be evaluated and sent to a government reform program to help mothers become “better.” This is a searing commentary on government’s reach into parenting and social programs, as well as the judgments and expectations society places on mothers.
The Need by Helen Phillips
This might not be the first book you think of when you think of books about motherhood, but this work of speculative fiction is in some ways, yes, a domestic thriller, but also an immersive examination of motherhood and all of the ambivalence that can come with that. When Molly, home alone with her two young kids, comes face to face with an intruder who seems to know way too much about them, Molly knows she has to protect her kids while facing her worst fears.
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Eleanor Bennett leaves behind a black cake and a voice recording for her two kids, Byron and Benny, when she dies. The message shares a story that challenges everything the siblings thought they knew about their family and themselves — can they repair their relationship, figure out her real history, and honor her last request? This novel is a powerful look at family, relationships, secrets, and identity that will leave you thinking about it long after you’re done.
The Long Answer by Anna Hogeland (Out June 21st)
Anna is 12 weeks pregnant when she talks with her sister, who has just miscarried her second pregnancy. As the two work through their relationship with the strain this brings, and complications arise for Anna, her path to motherhood is informed by the women she meets. This novel is a layered, nuanced look at pregnancy, motherhood, relationships, grief, and love. Especially now, when reproductive rights are being eroded and stolen, this is a timely depiction of the journeys people take to become parents, and emotional and physical demands that are part of it.
Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
Pru Steiner came to NYC with lots of dreams — and then fell in love with (and married) her Shakespeare professor, Spence, a prodigy in his field. Thirty years later, something isn’t right with Spence — he can’t concentrate, and he’s not himself, and eventually gets a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. Pru is struggling with his care, she’s dealing with her daughter at med school and feeling lonely…and then she meets another man. On top of all of this, Spence’s estranged son, a biotech investor, comes back, and he might be Spence’s best hope for possible treatment. This is an incisive exploration of family, marriage, parenthood, and what it means to share a life together.
Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding
Sonya’s life used to be much different: lots of men, fast cars, parties…but not for a while. Then there’s the drinking. Her son Tommy is what stops her, most of the time. But every time she slips up, she drinks — while also being terrified she’ll lose her son because of it. Harding captures the struggles of addiction with the pressures of parenting and how the two are at odds while also intertwined for Sonya.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Deming Guo’s mom Polly is undocumented, and one day she goes to work and never comes back. He’s eventually adopted by a couple, two white professors in a small town upstate, and renamed Daniel. Over the years, he struggles to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment while also dealing with his adoptive parents’ wishes for him to assimilate. But then when the reader hears from Polly, we see the choices she was forced to make, and how their lives took different paths than they ever intended. It’s a gutting look at mothers and children, parenting, and how to live with the choices that are given.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
A hauntingly written book, this is a story about a couple whose first pregnancy was derailed by devastating results, and whose second pregnancy resulted in the birth of their son — and the resulting limbo of diagnostic developmental examinations, waiting for diagnoses, and questions that follow. It is a story of parenting and marriage, honest and raw, brutal and tender. It’s a nuanced, layered novel about choices parents make, questions they ask, and the day to day work — yes, work — of parenting and relationships.
Which one will you read first?